“The problem is,” she says as she spears a piece of crispy bacon skilfully enough that it doesn’t shatter, “you’ve got a revolving door for a heart.”
He doesn’t like hearing things like this, mostly because she’s generally right. Ilsa’s clear-eyed about him. and that makes their friendship remarkably unfraught (apart from these moments). Unlike his other relationships. She sees him for who he is, but doesn’t stop talking to him, doesn’t judge him, not really, or if she does, she’s still friends with him. His father used to say he was his own worst enemy, and he wonders if that’s what she thinks. They talk about other things, laugh, it’s not always about his failings or her intolerance; it couldn’t be, or they’d never last five minutes, let alone five years. Maybe the friendship runs on pity.
He’ll take that.
She’s pretty, beautiful even, but she doesn’t look the way he needs her to, the way that sends him into a romantic frenzy. And she’s got no interest in him, which he finds fascinating. Resents a little too; it’s strange to have someone so . . . unmoved by you. Almost insulting. And relieving, he supposes.
You’re a very bad bet, she’s said before, and I’ve done my time with narcissists.
Why do you keep talking to me? he’d asked.
You’re decorative. You’re smart. You’re funny. And I don’t have to date you.
“That’s not fair.” He broke up with Clementine two days ago, some sympathy might be in order. He pushes the café’s all-day-breakfast scrambled eggs around his plate. He’s already swallowed the blue corn tacos down: they’d ordered at the same time, but when he’d seen her meal, his eyes went wide and he’d ordered again as a second course. She’d observed more than once that was the truth of him, his only true love was food, and he should thank the gods for his freakish metabolism. “I just . . .”
“You just put them on a pedestal from the start, you turn them into goddesses and even goddesses are imperfect, so there’s nowhere for them to go but down in your estimation. You romance them, you make them think they’re the one, that you’re exactly who they’ve been looking for; you mimic what they want, then you get bored. Sooner or later, you start to drift. And you know what? You’ve showered them with such attention, such radiance, then you take away the sun.” She waves a fork at him, the scrambled egg on the tines sways hypnotically. “And these are not stable women. I know that’s your type. I know why, but for fuck’s sake: you know you do this. You have to start taking responsibility.” She waves the fork again and he can’t take his eyes off the eggs, yellow and white swirled. “You have to stop dating avatars of your mother.”
“Hey, that’s really not fair!” He reaches for the mug of long black, but his hands don’t make it. Instead they curl up into fists he doesn’t know what to do with.
You keep dating versions of my sister, she thinks, but refrains from saying because it’s best he never meets Sophia or even knows she exists. It’s amazing the range of things you can avoid talking about with friends; the stuff you choose to not offer up. Besides, she lives two states away and doesn’t bother with Ilsa most of the time because there’s always a boyfriend around to take up Soph’s attention. Her sister occasionally calls, doesn’t leave messages if Ilsa doesn’t pick up—and Ilsa hasn’t picked up in forever—there’s just that long list of missed call notifications, like the one last week.
Ilsa stares at Will a moment longer. His face writes cheques that his nature can’t cash, she thinks, watching as he blushes, eyes flicker down, those thick lashes seeming to take a bow. Such a pretty face. “Why do you do it, then?”
“I just . . .” Lunch isn’t going the way he’d planned. Clementine had been a trial, she’d cut up his favourite hoodie, put his best Nikes into the InSinkErator. They’d only been together two months, so surely that was an overreaction? Surely he deserved a kind word? Surely?
Ilsa’s tired, she’s been working a lot of late nights because the exhibition’s coming up and she’s still got several pieces to finish. So, she’s got less patience than normal for Will and his standard bullshit; what she’d usually find amusing is, today, just fucking vexatious, and she doesn’t have the resources to keep that under control.
“Look, you’ll never put what’s right above your idea of true love.” She makes air quotes, and he feels like he’s been flicked with acid. “And true love doesn’t fucking exist, at least not your concept of it. You’re like a dog chasing a car: if you ever catch it, the bumper will knock your pretty face in. One day you’ll pick the wrong girl.” She drops her fork, grabs her handbag and pushes back from the table. “Wake up to yourself.”
He watches her walk out. It’s not as if she’s storming either, there’s not even enough emotion in her for a rage. It’s just her usual long-legged, earth-eating stride. He’s no more than an irritation, and that cuts.
• • • •
Ilsa spends the rest of the afternoon running errands, sourcing new brushes and paints, some groceries because she’s let the pantry run down the past few weeks and even the pasta has been reduced to three pieces of penne and some lengths of spaghetti and there’s not even a tin of tomatoes to drown them in. When the Uber lets her off outside her townhouse, she frowns.
There’s a light in the front bedroom of the top floor. She can’t recall turning it on.
When she gets through the gate and onto the little porch, she finds the door’s unlocked. Ilsa puts the bags of food and art supplies down quietly, then slips the slim tactical baton from her tote; a souvenir of a policeman ex-boyfriend who wondered for a while where it went. She flicks it to full-length—snik—then steps inside.
The house is narrow, three-storeys, renovated last year when her paintings started selling for stupid money. She could have moved but she likes it here, besides, the attic studio is exactly how she wants it. From the hallway she can see all the way down to where the kitchen and dining room wait, a lambent glow from the lights she definitely didn’t leave on. There’s the rattle and clack, the soft thud of someone going through drawers and cupboards, the hushed protest of the fridge closing without the aid of a push: the strange sideways gravity of expensive appliances.
Ilsa holds the baton high as she steps around the doorframe into the kitchen. She can feel her lips peeling back from her teeth, a familiar rictus of rage and affront: how dare anyone invade her space? She’s bringing the billy-club down as she swings in, sees her sister’s pale face, eyes wide, mouth an “o” as she drops a plate on the tiled floor, watching the weapon descend like an axe.
• • • •
“Your face!” Sophia says, clutching at her chest dramatically. “I thought you were going to kill me.”
“Don’t be silly. I didn’t know it was you.” Ilsa sips a glass of the white wine Sophia brought with her. “Besides, you don’t want a home invader to think you’re fucking around.”
They’re in the sitting room. The shards of the broken plate have been cleared away, Ilsa laid out a platter of cheese and crackers; Sophia’s meal-related forward planning only ever encompasses booze. Behind the glass, the flames of the gas-fire are leaping against the chill of an autumn evening.
“How’d you get in, Sophia?” asks Ilsa.
“Now, you only call me that when I’m in trouble.”
“Not in trouble, no. Soph.” Sophie and Soph when she was good; Sophia when she wasn’t.
“The spare key’s under the porch rail. Just like it was at home.” Sophia smiles, smug. See? I’m clever too.
Not quite, thinks Ilsa: at “home,” it was stuck on the underside with a lump of Blu-Tack from God-knows-where that retained its stickiness well beyond the natural lifespan of such things. Here, in her neat townhouse, her place, her sanctuary, the key’s in a small metal box, a magnet keeps it attached to the steel plate the builder screwed beneath the rail. She’d decided against a coded lockbox, but maybe she should think about it again. If this—her sister—was going to become a habit.
Ilsa sighs, reaches for a cracker, a sliver of brie. “Soph, if you’d let me know you were coming—left an actual message—I’d have made arrangements. I wouldn’t have been so surprised. Anyway, what’s wrong, you can’t talk to a machine?”
“I came on a whim, Ilsa, you know how I am. Besides, I hate leaving voicemails.”
“What’s . . .” Ilsa trawls her memory for the name of the last one, “Digby think of that?”
“Rigby. We’re on a break.” Sophie’s glance slips away, finds the flames.
Broke up, thinks Ilsa. “What about work?”
“They owe me a lot of leave.”
Fired, thinks Ilsa.
“So, I thought I’d come and visit my big sister.”
Freeload, thinks Ilsa.
Ilsa sighs again, but only internally. A second visual sign of exasperation will bring on one of Sophia’s traditional tantrums, and Ilsa’s already exhausted from brunch with Will. So she smiles instead and sips her wine, praying it might give her some sort of strength, more than she’s currently got for dealing with difficult people.
“The spare room’s liveable,” she says, and it’s more than that because she’s always prepared. “I’ll put fresh sheets on the bed while you take a shower—or a bubble bath, there’s a huge tub.”
“Thank you, sissy,” says Sophia, and smiles, and Ilsa sees the little girl she used to be, so small when their mother brought her home from the hospital. Ilsa’s doll, Momma said, when what she meant was that Ilsa would be looking after the baby because Momma had other things to do.
Ilsa thinks how much she’d loved her sister before Sophie discovered boys and decided she needed attention in order to live; that as long as she could see herself reflected in the twin mirrors of some guy’s gaze, then she had worth, she had value, she existed. She’d got that from their mother, along with the long blonde hair and soulful brown eyes that looked hurt even when they weren’t.
It had taken years but yes, Ilsa’s sisterly love had dimmed, and a kind of pitying contempt took its place. You can only hurt for so long, Ilsa knows. The fact she couldn’t rely on her sister—support only went one way—meant that Ilsa had gradually let contact between them die. She’d known, somehow, that if she didn’t make the effort, then nothing would happen (except missed phone calls that’d only mean requests and demands if you’d answered), but letting something like that occur (that dying) takes time—you have to be able to allow it. It confirms all your worst fears, she thinks, that you’ve loved too foolishly for too many years. Even blood ties can’t make up for that.
Their parents were long gone, there were no children, nephews or nieces, that might have made an effort seem worthwhile. The threads between them had become thin as spider webs, things that could only be noticed if you looked carefully, only obvious on rainy days when droplets made the silken lines visible. But now, seeing Sophie, Ilsa ached. Ached for the old closeness, for what they’d once had. She ached to feel, just for a moment, that her sister was hers and always would be. Even if it was a lie, and Ilsa wasn’t given to believing such things.
The ache, though, it plied a little crack in her heart and she scolded herself. It will end as it always does, with the butterfly departing on a whim, taking my favourite jeans and earrings, and leaving roughly the same devastation in its wake as a tornado. Following some man who has eyes like mirrors, eyes that made promises they couldn’t or wouldn’t keep.
But still: the breach has been made, and even her heart’s susceptible to hope and the inevitable future fracturing.
• • • •
It’s two days later, when she’s up in the studio, that the doorbell rings. Ilsa doesn’t think anything of it, because there are always deliveries of books and supplies, occasionally flowers from a suitor, although those have been few and far between for a couple of months. That’s okay, she’s got more than enough to occupy her time, and when she desires attention again, it won’t be a problem. It’s a want, not a need, and she recognises it as such. Ilsa’s never needed to see herself in someone else’s gaze.
The advantage of having her sister around is that Sophie can sign for parcels without Ilsa having to stop what she’s doing. After a couple of hours, she pauses and heads downstairs for some lunch. She’s careful to lock the door because Sophia’s curious as a cat and has no sense of boundaries, and the last thing Ilsa needs is her sister wittering on in the studio while she’s trying to work.
There are voices coming from the sitting room. Ilsa frowns: surely not even Soph would invite the delivery guy in for a drink? She thinks again, seems to recall that Digby-Rigby worked for FedEx when Soph moved him into her place a few years ago. But no, it’s worse. The tones get clearer as she gets closer. Her heart spasms with realisation. Bile bubbles and she tells herself it’s stupid, an overreaction. She’s being melodramatic, behaving like Sophia at her best or worst. Ilsa tells herself that.
On her expensive leather sofa, sitting too close, are Sophia and Will, smiling at each other as if those are the only expressions they ever wear, as if those smiles will never stop, as if those smiles are only ever for each other. As if they’ve been waiting for this very moment, this very meeting. They don’t look up when Ilsa enters the room. They don’t look up when she leaves without a word, the pit of her dropping away into an unplumbed abyss.
• • • •
It lasts six whole weeks, and it’s unbearable.
Sophia, when she’s home, sits on the edge of Ilsa’s bed at all hours of the night, singing Will’s perfections and asking why Ilsa had never introduced them. Ilsa doesn’t bother explaining, old experience has taught her that Sophia doesn’t listen to anything that doesn’t support what she wants. I just never thought of it and besides, you live so far away, she says, and hopes it will pass quickly. That Will gets bored sooner rather than later, that Sophia finds a new reflective surface somewhere else, that she swiftly returns home, is out of Ilsa’s hair and life.
She hopes her sister will soon be gone.
Will’s not much in evidence at the townhouse, he knows better than to push his luck. He just drives by, collects Sophia, takes her away, sometimes for days at a time. But she’s always returned in the end, like it’s a custody arrangement Ilsa never agreed to.
• • • •
It lasts six long weeks.
Then Will’s heart, inevitably, begins to change.
He’s seen all Sophia’s facets and moods and some of them aren’t pretty. No prettier than his, frankly—and in the end, he doesn’t really want to be with someone who reminds him of himself. Her gaze, at first so compelling, flattering, was a focus of attention that made him the centre of the universe. But eventually it began to feel like she wasn’t adding to him, but taking away . . . draining him.
It wasn’t quite the same as usual, less a boredom and more a kind of fear, but it had the same result, in the end.
I think we should spend some time apart.
I think we should see other people, so we appreciate each other more.
I’ve started to think of you as a friend, and I don’t want to hurt you . . .
Even though it was well past the time when hurt might not be done.
He had liked her, a lot.
He’d gone to the townhouse to continue the argument with Ilsa—he was sufficiently irritated two days after the fight—but he’d met Sophia, hadn’t he? Initially, it was simply a means to get at Ilsa, but he hadn’t intended to begin something only to end it. Of course, he never intended to break up—he could almost hear Ilsa’s voice in his head—but it always happened. He’d wanted to show Ilsa that he could do what she said he couldn’t. And wasn’t her sister the best way to do that? The best way to show her, to make her sister happy, to make Sophia his?
But Ilsa was right, and what always happened, happened yet again.
He thought Sophia had taken it well. She’d smiled, eyes a little glassy with unshed tears. He thought she was brave. She’d be fine.
• • • •
It lasts six short weeks.
Ilsa finds Sophia in the bathtub, cold and unmoving. No note, nothing so dramatic, which is very much out of character for her sister. Maybe this last act was statement enough; in death, she’d finally learnt the art of understatement. The scalpel Sophia’d used—taken from a packet of newly delivered equipment—lay on the plush white bathmat, like a silver stem for the red blossoms that had dripped from one wrist.
Ilsa stares at her bloodless butterfly of a sister, and all she feels is cold. As if all her blood had flowed away with Sophie’s. But there’s no pain, no ache, no scream pushing its way out. She imagines they’ll come later. When they’re good and ready.
It’s the day before the exhibition. Ilsa makes arrangements for the funeral, while her assistant takes care of the last details of the opening night; she’ll bury Sophia the day after. No one knows her sister here—there was no chance to introduce her to any friends before she’d attached herself to Will. Ilsa doesn’t tell anyone.
She doesn’t tell Will, not even when he arrives at the exhibition.
She sees him standing by one of the pieces, one of the great red canvasses she’s painted in a variety of materials, all studies in death and decay and rebirth. The theme is “desire.” They’re confronting and dramatic, bodies in motion and torment, long limbed and reaching. They’ve found favour with the rich who don’t understand them, but covet all the same.
• • • •
Will has some of her early work, before her prices got out of his league. Someone once offered him a lot for one of them, but he’d refused to sell. It’s something he has of hers, and that’s important.
At the opening, he thinks he’s never seen Ilsa look so lovely. She’s tall and slender, her hair is straight and dark, and there’s an air to her that he recognises but can’t understand for a moment. Then he realises: she’s broken. He feels it more than he sees it, but it’s there for sure. A fracture in her that wasn’t there before. More than one, like she’s a mirror that’s been dropped, and fault lines run across her surface, though she’s holding herself together.
She’s irresistible, now.
• • • •
She sees him and stares. He raises his glass and then, very slowly, she nods.
Ilsa circulates around the party; they circle each other unhurriedly, don’t intersect until the end of the evening. It doesn’t occur to Will that perhaps this is a bad idea. Only when most of the paintings have “sold” stickers on, when the crowd has dispersed, and Ilsa has given her assistant final instructions, only then does Will approach. She says she wants to go back to her place. He hesitates. She says, “Soph’s not there anymore,” and he assumes they’ve had some sisterly falling out, that Sophia has gone back from whence she came. He doesn’t ask any questions.
• • • •
Ilsa still refuses to kiss him and it’s driving him nuts. He should have realised she’d draw things out, he’s known her long enough. She’s not one for instant gratification.
There’s another glass of wine and another, but he doesn’t notice hers never empties, is never refilled. He’s got other things on his mind. He’s happy to follow her up to the attic studio when she suggests it. He’s happy to let her tie him to the chair in the centre of the white-walled room lined with canvasses in various states of finishing. He thinks she’ll straddle him, take him inside her, but she doesn’t.
She stops answering questions, she begins making preparations, setting out buckets and bottles, lining up sharp silver objects along a bench. He starts to sober, just a little, just enough to take notice of the bigger jars on the metal shelving along one wall: a lot of red, thick and dark, with things floating in the liquid, too far away for him to distinguish what they are precisely, but enough to terrify him.
“Ilsa, I want to stop. I want to go home.” He hates that he sounds like a little boy.
“Didn’t I tell you that one day you’d pick the wrong girl?” She shows him the photo on her phone, the one she took of Sophia in the crimson-filled tub, the one she took before she called emergency services even though it was well past an emergency.
Will looks at those bottles again, gazes around, notices at last the discarded mound of men’s shoes in a corner. He thinks about all the boyfriends who’ve disappeared from her life, how they never troubled her again, no stalking, no insistence, damage contained. A rare woman untroubled by men who can’t let go.
“You’ve such a pretty face. It would be a shame to waste it,” she says, and begins to cut.